LIKE so many other Americans, the California artist Harry Fonseca can claim mixed ancestry: in his case, Portuguese and Hawaiian as well as Maidu Indian. He presents himself as a Maidu, but one of the basic themes of his art is that an American Indian living in the modern world can choose from a variety of possible identities. To dramatize that observation, Fonseca has done a series of paintings inspired by Coyote, a popular figure in American Indian mythology. Coyote plays practical jokes, to put it as kindly as possible. Sometimes this American Indian Till Eulenspiegel wins and sometimes he loses, but he always survives to try yet another trick. Part of his considerable armory of resources is his ability to disguise his appearance.
The forms that Coyote assumes in Harry Fonseca's paintings are not terribly different from the real choices available to Indians. ``Coyote Leaves the Res, NY, NY'' shows our antihero standing in front of a brick wall, presumably in New York City. He is dressed like a teen-ager in a city slum: sneakers, blue jeans, and black leather jacket festooned with zippers and chains.
He still has a coyote's face and a coyote's tail, however, which may suggest that under the appearance and behavior of the urban underclass, American Indians have retained their cultural identity.
Going beyond the traditional legends in the interest of equality between the sexes, Fonseca has invented a companion for Coyote, named Rose. One Coyote-and-Rose painting shows the couple selling Indian craft objects at an open-air market in Santa Fe; another shows them in ballet costume, dancing ``Swan Lake.''
Even if Coyote chooses to stay within the ancestral culture of the tribe, it is by now impossible to keep things pure. In such a painting as ``Star Dancer'' the dance may - or may not - go back to time immemorial, but the dancer himself is clearly one of our contemporaries, wearing a striped tank top, blue jeans, sneakers, and a whistle. The feather cloak and the dancing sticks (representing Coyote's front legs) are traditional Maidu dance regalia.
The Coyote legends have taken on new meaning since the European conquest of North America. Even after the worst of his misadventures Coyote survives, and so gives Indians hope that after centuries of defeat they, too, may survive, and their traditional culture with them. Like Coyote, however, they may have to change in outward ways in order to reach an accommodation with modern life.
It is not only American Indians who find themselves under pressure to make rapid changes in their lives. Anyone who lives in an advanced industrial society may well experience one ``outer identity'' after another. Fonseca makes it clear that he is addressing universal anxieties about change.
``You gain something and lose something,'' he says. ``You have to weigh these gains and losses, and make changes with awareness and clarity. Coyote just responds. He doesn't take time to reflect. As human beings, we also respond too quickly to things.''
Coyote's responses to the modern world offer Fonseca a kind of comic relief from his more conventional involvement with his Indian heritage. He was born in Sacramento, Calif., in 1946 and says that he knew from the age of 11 or so that he was going to be an artist when he grew up. Henry Azbill, an uncle who was an elder of the mighty tribe, encouraged him to attend Indian dances when he was young, and was always ready to talk with him about Indian culture.
As an artist, however, Fonseca was largely an abstract expresssionist when he was in his twenties. In 1976, after he tape recorded his uncle telling the Maidu creation myth as part of a school assignment, he became eager to use that material in art. He embarked on a three-year oral history project, recording the stories of the Maidu. Part of his work uses American Indian tradition with a straight face. His newest series, for example, is derived from the patterns that Indians have carved or painted on rock walls, such as those of the Grand Canyon.
The Coyote dancer who performs in Maidu ritual offers a bridge connecting the humorous and the sacred. Wearing a headdress in the form of a coyote's head, the dancer is something of a clown, and as a young man Fonseca was taken with his humorous aspect. But in Maidu legend Coyote is not merely a practical joker; he is also responsible for work, suffering, and death.
Fonseca's Coyote and Rose are cartoonlike exaggerations inspired by the double nature of the Coyote dancer. ``He was such a kick,'' Fonseca recalls, ``and I thought it was really wonderful - to have a religious approach to life, and also a little levity, a little escape. You have strength in both of them.''
``Coyote: A Myth in the Making,'' an exhibition of Harry Fonseca's work, began at the Oakland (Calif.) Museum and will travel to museums in Fresno, Calif. (Feb. 29 to May 29); Colorado Springs, Colo. (July 2 to Sept. 4); Omaha, Neb. (Oct. 1 to Nov. 20); and Washington (Dec. 21 to Mar. 21).